Iran Nuclear NewsUS counts the cost as Iran backtracks on nuclear...

US counts the cost as Iran backtracks on nuclear deal

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The Times: The latest international attempt to persuade Iran
to halt its controversial nuclear programme was badly jolted yesterday by Tehran’s sudden announcement that it planned
to press on with the most controversial strand of the work.
The Times

Foreign Editor’s Briefing

By Bronwen Maddox

THE latest international attempt to persuade Iran to halt its controversial nuclear programme was badly jolted yesterday by Tehran’s sudden announcement that it planned to press on with the most controversial strand of the work.

The declaration threatened to scupper a deal painfully hammered out with Britain, France and Germany that was intended to defuse confrontation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN nuclear watchdog. But as the IAEA’s board of governors assembled in Vienna yesterday, the Iranian move left European officials stunned.

“It was vintage, really bad timing, and unnecessarily provocative and disruptive,” one Western official said last night. Iran’s plan to keep running up to 20 centrifuges “for research purposes” to enrich uranium was technically insignificant, he said, and represented only a tiny fraction of its capability. “It may not be a deal-breaker. But it has soured the mood and made it hard for the Europeans to prove to the US that negotiation can work”.

Diplomats said that the IAEA board might still reach a consensus by tonight, as scheduled. But Iran’s move had left Europeans in little mood to compromise on two other sticking points which jeopardised a deal.

Mohammed ElBaradei, IAEA director-general, told the board that the agency was “still in discussion” with Iran on this sudden request. On a positive note, Iran had been much more co-operative since December 2003 and the agency was now sure that all the nuclear material which Iran had disclosed had not been diverted towards weapons.

But he gave warning that “the agency is not yet in a position to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran”. Its systematic attempts at concealing its 20-year programme meant that “a confidence deficit has been created and confidence needs to be restored”.

Why this week matters

SINCE 2002, when Iran’s nuclear programme came to light, the quarterly meetings of the IAEA board of governors have become cliffhangers as other countries have tried to extract reassurance from Tehran that it is not pursuing weapons.

The setting, drab even by UN standards, hardly suggests drama: four arcs of tan leather seats in the windowless boardroom, with its 1970s dark orange carpet and fittings. The talk is unrelentingly technical; even the most technophobic officials can draw a centrifuge freehand.

Yet the boffinish exchanges belie the significance of the challenge: can the pressure of international opinion, together with the creaking clauses of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), still dissuade a country from building the bomb? This month’s meeting matters more than most. Britain, France and Germany gave notice in September that they were reaching a point of “sharp exasperation” in trying to negotiate with Iran, in the words of one British official. If Iran failed to halt its work they would join the US in pressing for a referral to the UN Security Council.

The deal

UNTIL this week, Britain, France and Germany thought they had a deal, repairing the holes in the deal they thought they struck last year. Most important, stopping suspension of enrichment also meant stopping the “conversion” of uranium into the gas fed into centrifuges. The draft resolution now before the IAEA board is based on the European deal.

But this week, even before the revelation of its “research” plans, Iran gibbed at a clause saying that if it resumed enrichment it would be referred to the UN. It says that the work is legal under the NPT, that its suspension is voluntary and that referral would be without legal basis. It also objects to the powers of inspection the resolution would give the IAEA.

The problem

THE problem is the NPT itself, which allows a country legally to acquire the skills to take it to the brink of weapons capability. The governors’ best retort, as Mr ElBaradei said, is that Iran has broken the treaty in concealing its work to the point where there is real cause for alarm about its intentions, and justification for exceptional curbs.

What Iran has won

IN TWO years of talks, Iran has edged forward. It has not dismantled the equipment. It has inserted clauses in all deals stressing that the suspension is “voluntary”. It is also said to be pleased with the clause saying it will join the IAEA’s “Expert Group on Multilateral Approaches to the Nuclear Fuel Cycle”, reading into this membership of a “club” with a say in the making of the world’s nuclear fuel.

US weak

THIS week has shown the US’s weakness. France and Germany have made clear their commitment to negotiation, not referral, and Britain is still close to their position. As one senior British official puts it: “The US can’t say what it would want the Security Council to do” if it did secure a referral. Senior US officials acknowledge they are in no position to talk of military strikes against Iranian facilities, given the US’s predicament in Iraq and the lack of international support.

The US’s need for Pakistan’s support in Afghanistan appears to explain why it has not pushed harder for access to scientist AQ Khan, now under house arrest, for selling nuclear designs and equipment to Iran among others. Recent US news reports have suggested he sold weapons designs, something which, if confirmed, would secure a Security Council referral instantly.

ElBaradei out?

THE US has also not yet won much support on the board for its bid to dislodge Mr ElBaradei, who wants to begin a third term next year. The US has not formally stated its views, but American diplomats make little secret of their antipathy. “Thank heaven for small mercies”, said one, when the director-general did not win the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this year. They feel he is too sympathetic to Iran, perhaps because he is Muslim. They believe he would see referral to the Security Council as a personal failure (something strongly denied by his aides in Vienna). Above all, they feel he is promoting his own agenda, including the notion of an internationally-shared centre to make nuclear fuel, something they see as a Utopian distraction.

Fallout — South Korea

ONE of the side-effects of the Iranian impasse is that the IAEA is at a loss in dealing with South Korea’s similar but smaller infringements of enrichment experiments. A referral — without similar action on Iran — would look ludicrous.

Conclusion

THE deal that the three European countries struck with Iran, echoed in the draft resolution now before the board in Vienna, is a tough one, at face value. But even if it passes, the question is whether Iran will observe it — or whether it will resume enrichment. And the deal represents the loss of a year; this is, after all, no more than the deal the European trio thought they had last autumn. Above all, these negotiations show how much Iraq has cost the US: in the coolness of relations with France and Germany, in scepticism about its claims to have detected weapons of mass destruction, and in the assumption that it cannot contemplate military strikes.

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